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The new wireless

Two of the latest plans for wireless data - the IEEE's Wi-Max and cellular's EV-DO - promise high speed and ubiquitous access, but users remain wary.

By Sandra Gittlen, Network World
September 27, 2004 12:10 AM ET

Network World - While users enjoy the boom in wireless access, IT managers still are looking for more out of their wireless infrastructures. Distance and speed limitations of wireless LANs make planning for comprehensive campus-wide or metropolitan-area deployments very challenging. And the piecemeal costs of wireless hot-spot access create billing and budgeting nightmares.

Two new initiatives - the IEEE's 802.16 Wi-Max standard and the carriers' Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) networks - aim to alleviate these woes. With Wi-Max, enterprise IT managers will be able to build campus-wide wireless networks with transfer rates as high as 70M bit/sec. EV-DO, on the other hand, offers mobile workers with laptops and other devices high-speed wireless service with data rates of 300K to 500K bit/sec. The approaches vary, but the goals are the same: ubiquitous and easy-to-manage wireless access.

Taking wireless to the Max

The initial deployments of Wi-Max, due later this year, will follow the IEEE 802.16d standard, which specifies connections based on fixed-antennae locations. (A mobile version will follow late next year.) The estimated cost of fixed deployments will be about $500 for a base station and card.

While Wi-Max outpaces Wi-Fi with its impressive data-transfer speed, its real attraction is in coverage distance. High-speed Wi-Max networks with line of sight to an antenna reportedly can stretch 30 miles; without line of sight, the distance shrinks to 5 to 10 miles. Either way, this is far beyond the thousands of square feet that Wi-Fi networks offer.

"Wi-Max is the fit between small wireless and big wireless, between Wi-Fi and 3G," says Bruce Fleming, divisional technology officer for Verizon Federal Network Systems.

Wi-Max, which operates in the 2-GHz to 11-GHz range, has widespread backing. Supporters include Intel, which says it will debut its Wi-Max-enabled silicon later this year, and gear makers such as Alvarion, Aperto Networks, Proxim and Redline Communications. These vendors all have announced 802.16 equipment plans. On the carrier side, Verizon will start piloting Wi-Max by year-end. Fleming says he expects a rapid ramp-up into mid-2005.

Wi-Max proponents pitch the standard as everything from a way to create on-the-fly networks rapidly in hard-to-wire rural areas to a competitor for costly last-mile service.

Allen Gwinn, senior IT director at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says he is hopeful but skeptical. He has been tracking closely the progress of the Wi-Max Forum, the industry body responsible for certifying product interoperability. "Right now, this is all pie in the sky," he says. "We don't know what this technology is. We're operating off of big 'ifs.' "

9 BURNING QUESTIONS
TO ASK ABOUT NEW WIRELESS DATA SERVICES
On EV-DO:
  • How can I supplement my existing cell service with support for EV-DO? And how much will that cost?
  • Where do you provide coverage, and what’s your projected build-out plans?
  • What average throughput speeds can I expect, and will you guarantee those in writing?
  • Are you offering incentives for early contractual commitments?
On Wi-Max:
  • How much can I expect to pay for a base station and card?
  • Will you assist with a site survey to help determine antenna placement, or do you provide tools for such?
  • With line of sight, how much distance coverage can I expect? And without line of sight?
  • How do you handle channel parsing?
  • Do you plan on supporting mobile Wi-Max as well and, if so, when?

Gwinn says if all goes well, he will employ Wi-Max as a replacement for his last-mile connectivity. "If you ask people what their goal would be for Wi-Max and they were being honest with you, they'd say to get rid of Ma Bell," he says. "That's the most costly and challenging part of access."

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